When the Central C Stands for Connections

Call it the Central Crew, the Central Squad or simply Central College alumni. The fact is, Central alums take an active role helping other alumni and current students, creating a global network of resources and opportunities. One story of connection starts with a Central experience in 1959 and stretches all the way to 2015.

Athena Bown Puski '12 and Nyla Rozeboom Heerema '63

Athena Bown Puski ’12 and Nyla Rozeboom Heerema ’63

In her time

When Nyla Rozeboom Heerema entered Central in 1959, a young woman majoring in chemistry was somewhat unusual.

“I wanted to be pre-med, and I really liked Art Bosch,” Heerema ‘63 recalls. The legendary Central chemistry professor encouraged her to persist.

And persist she did, earning a Ph.D. degree in genetics from the University of Iowa, only after the university created a genetics major for her within its existing zoology department curriculum. A post-doctoral fellowship in human genetics led her to Indiana University, where she served on the faculty for more than 20 years. She then conducted research at Wayne Hughes Medical Institute before accepting her current clinical research position as professor of pathology and director of cytogenetics at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Heerema’s research focuses on chromosomes, the structures inside cells that contain DNA, and how differences or abnormalities in chromosomes affect cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Her specific areas of research are pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia and adult chronic lymphocytic leukemia, the most common forms of childhood and adult leukemia.

Heerema’s work in cytogenetics has earned her recognition as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) “for distinguished contributions to the field of medical genetics, particularly for the cytogenetics studies of chromosomes of leukemia in children and other human diseases.”

The Big C unites

Many who have reached such career heights wouldn’t consider devoting time and energy to undergraduates. Yet, the renowned cancer researcher says that if Central can continue to send her more “well-prepared” interns like Athena Bowen Puski ’12 and Sam Palmer ’17, she will gladly take more into her lab at Ohio State.

Puski, who graduated in December 2012 with biology and Spanish majors and chemistry minor, worked with Heerema at Ohio State during the summer following her junior year at Central.

Palmer, a biology and biochemistry major and Spanish minor from Pella, spent two months in Heerema’s lab during summer 2015.

Why divert time and attention to undergraduates at this point in her esteemed career? Heerema explains the urgency to bring more young scientists into the fold.

“The field is rapidly expanding due to The Human Genome Project. There are great opportunities. There are also great pressures to raise money and write grants for research, so we understand the pressures that go into science,” she says. “I knew offering the internship was something I could do. The satisfaction and success Sam and Athena got from participating in the internship was very gratifying for me.”

Sam Palmer '17 and Nyla Rozeboom Heerema '63

Sam Palmer ’17 and Nyla Rozeboom Heerema ’63

Making connections

When Heerema spoke at Career Day on campus in 2012, Puski was intrigued by what she heard from the experienced scientist. She sent her resume at the urging of Paulina Mena, associate professor of biology. Mena’s own research interest examines how organisms adapt to their environments and what role their chromosomal architecture plays in that process.

Heerema too was intrigued by what she saw in Puski’s background and, with a colleague, created a project for the Central student and aspiring geneticist.

“Athena’s project was created for her, but she started with no background or training in the technology. She learned the techniques quickly and gained the respect of other scientists. There are more and more team projects in genetics, but this was an independent investigation,” Heerema explains. “The summer Athena was here, we had several students from liberal arts colleges in our lab, and Athena was a star, which says a lot about a Central education.”

For Puski, the internship solidified her career plans in a field that had always interested her. “The internship helped shape my career interest and to decide if research is what I wanted to do,” Puski says. “I’d always been interested in genetics, but the internship made me realize I wanted a combination of research and clinical work, not full-time lab research. Probably the biggest value from the internship was learning the basics of working in a professional lab setting — learning what it’s like to work side-by-side with researchers, professionals and doctors.”

Palmer learned about Heerema’s research through Carol Williamson, vice president for enrollment management and dean of admission at Central. He sent Heerema his resume and talked with her about why he was interested in an internship opportunity.

When he arrived at Ohio State last June, Palmer continued the research project begun by Puski, which Heerema describes as “ongoing research that can be reopened at any time.” He also worked on a second project — examining markers of genome instability commonly found in blood cancers — that he expects will result in a journal publication.

“The value of the internship was the wide breadth of technology we got to use … at a major medical center with the resources of a large institution,” Palmer says. “The internship made me much more interested in the medical field, and my research experience at a major university will open doors. This is meaningful work that I love, and Central connections made it all possible.”

In their time

When Puski returned to campus after her internship at Ohio State, she completed a paper and presentation poster about her research in Heerema’s lab. After graduating from Central, Puski worked as a quality control technician at Midland Bioproducts in Boone, Iowa, analyzing antibody levels in goat serum, with responsibility for pre-testing before manufacturing.

But the pull of qualitative genetics research led Puski to return to Ohio State in 2014. She is now in the second year of a master’s program in genetic counseling.

“Nyla helped me get into my graduate program with her recommendations and her connections to faculty in the department. When I graduate next May, I will be prepared to be a genetic counselor,” Puski explains.

Genetic counselors help families understand genetic conditions, perform genetic risk analysis, order genetic testing and discuss the potential outcomes and implications of genetic testing with the family. Puski says, “After board exams, I hope to relocate to central Iowa, which has an expanding field.”

Palmer is back on campus this fall, carrying a full course load, preparing for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and continuing his research with faculty member Jay Wackerly. He plans to go to Wales during spring semester and will train next summer as an emergency medical technician (EMT) to prepare himself for the rigors and realities of medical school.

Compliments all around

Of the recognized cancer researcher, Palmer and Puski say:

  • Athena: “I know that she is always there for me if I need her. She helped me get where I am today.”
  • Sam: “As a mentor, Dr. Heerema was very willing to help with any questions or concerns at any time, very warm and welcoming. She was also willing to let me make decisions and set up experiments to grow confidence in the lab. She’s very busy with clinical trials but always willing to help.”

Of their Central education, the young scientists say:

  • Athena: “My Central education helped me to connect to alumni and to see what other possibilities there are, to see everything that’s out there.”
  • Sam: “I take a lot of pride in my Central education. Nyla was impressed by the quality of education we are receiving and our commitment to academics.”

From the mentor and advisor herself:

“They were well-prepared. They knew how to think and were well-rounded. Their broad education helped them to be good thinkers and problem solvers.”

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